It’s been a rough few months. A dear friend lost his battle with cancer, and I have been battling a wicked dental infection and a dying tooth for two months while navigating the weirdness that has become American social behavior – largely very threatening and intimidating aggression by an unpredictable public daily at my job…and elsewhere.
Needless to say, after having to bolt the doors against an unmasked “veteran” threatening to come into our VETERINARY CLINIC and duly express himself in protest against mask-requirements, sporadic curbside requirements and apparently our political ignorance and professional incompetence (and then dealing with typically three or so of these types daily) has been taking its toll. The physical and emotional stress has been all but intolerable. If it weren’t for the love of the animals we see, I would be one of those “enlightened, epiphany job quitters.” But as it stands, I also don’t want these self-entitled idiots to “win”… I like my job. And so do my creditors.
With all of the stress, I needed to just turn the world off. So of course I retreated to my genre – seeking sanctuary and diversion to the exclusion of all else. I wound up watching ghost videos on YouTube – distracting myself by asking exactly what IS it that scares a modern Horror audience and…WHY???
I found some interesting things to ponder. So this is a blog post about scaring in Horror, about whether we have gone too far in catering to an audience that seems to want a three-second thrill and then bemoans the lack of authenticity, about the notable loss of religion as a subtextual platform for communication. This post is all about what we have done to modern ghosts. It comes from a place of self-isolation, refuge, pain and irritation. So bear with me. I am still getting my sea-legs back.
(Anyway, I apologize to the regular readers of this blog…I have been unable to keep Life at bay, lately. Light at the end of the tunnel? One can hope.)
“Five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has even been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.” —Samuel Johnson
In the end, we are all Fox Mulder, wanting to believe. Why we want to believe is a changing paradox, but it haunts us as well as any spirit – demanding we at least have a position on the issue (one private, and one official and public). Does this mean that we – despite our best efforts to declare ourselves sophisticated – are at heart spiritual creatures in search of spiritual answers? And if we really don’t believe in religion, why does the threat or opportunity of finding “proof” of the afterlife hold such addictive terror?
Often the question of ghosts is associated with the Bigger Question of why we are “here”… of our own very personal struggles to explain our existence and our obligations, to silence that nagging feeling that we should be doing Something Big with our lives, something that matters…But it is also connected to the question of the existence of God, of justice, and increasingly during “modern” times… mental stability.
This has placed Horror in general and ghosts in particular squarely into an “entertainment” category, and religion into a box marked “superstition.” This is a shame on so many levels, because we are as human beings much better at good behavior with a little…incentive (be it reward or punishment). And I am already seeing plenty of the kind of people who believe that they are the alpha and omega, whose needs subvert all others’… Atheists may say what they like about proof, power and self-delusion, but those who believe in judgement and eternal damnation tend to behave better – especially if we cannot rely on society to enforce the rules of common respect and decency…and we are indeed living in a performative reality right now, where everyone and everything is over-dramatized for effect.
This is the world in which we find ourselves as writers trying to deliver effective Horror. We still have Questions, but now we poke fun at them when we don’t outright mock them. And it is one thing to have an audience that may not be able to harvest religious references nested in our prose for a reason, but it is quite another to have writers who no longer know those cues, let alone how to use them to good effect.
All of this distancing from what we tend to call “organized religion” has also distanced us from the very subtextual rhythms every generation has reverberated to since we formed social groups. We have lost our ability to create resonance. It’s like we have lost an entire lexicon right along with the self-policing that comes with that “early training” in churchly thinking, so that references are not recognized or given the weight a writer might intend as cues or foreshadowing. We don’t understand or value references, and this means that when we look at old Horror anew, we actually miss the drivers behind the Horror.
An example rests with the success of one of Horror’s most provocative classics – The Exorcist – which drove its movie audiences into a tailspin of self-questioning. As we look back at it on its Hollywood anniversary, we hear how insignificant it seems to be, how shallow, how “tame” by our modern amplified jump-scare special effects standards. Young Horror fans snicker at the rumors of adult terror, much as our generation snickered at the 1950s audiences seen stampeding from The Blob… Yet those movies did terrify… we have merely lost their context.
Technology, by its scientific roots, ridicules religion: that which cannot be proven to scientific standards does not exist. And since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have been trying to reconcile what we felt with what could be proven. By the 1970s, disenfranchisement with the duplicity seen in the execution of organized religion was quickly married to the mockery of religion as mindless superstition. When people left churches in pain and bitterness, they embraced the opportunity to wield the club that technology was offering: mental superiority.
Yet we weren’t really so sure of ourselves. Early seeds had been planted, and what-ifs plagued us with guilt.
The Exorcist reminded us that opinions mean nothing in the face of truth, and to question what if God and the Devil are both real and have noticed our drifting from the churches and synagogues and temples that marked the New Age, New Skepticism, New Betrayals of the 1970’s… what if the devil were to come for us? If God is dead or we doubted Him one time too many? What would become of us, of our souls? If the questions are taken seriously, they become quite terrifying. Because … in space…in a real Hell nested in an atheistic world…no one can hear you scream.
But death comes for all of us. And so the Questions remain.
There used to be a prominent saying: there are no atheists in foxholes.
And THAT is the one thing Horror writers have over science every time. We all die. And death is an excruciatingly personal journey. Therefore so is any revelation that comes. We don’t get to pop back into body to reassure our fellow humans that life goes on…or that it doesn’t. And that means that every death – but especially our own – is draped in dread and hope, joy, resignation or outright fear. Death is a cloying mystery. This is the open door through which Horror shoves, drags, lures, or startles its audience.
So why is it that it takes so little to scare so many? And why is it we come for the Questions and don’t stay for the answers? Have we lost our religion, or simply the lexicon to properly name our questions and interpret the answers?
I turned to YouTube to find out. Surely, I thought, there would be a hint about how we are fashioning our questions and our fears, at how all our bad Horror happens…
Ghost Busters, Ghost Videos and Godless Horror
Simply put, ghost hunters are a lot like professional wrestlers. After a while, even the “honest” ones get tainted. And typically, what starts out as collections of curious-yet-conveniently filmed events gradually morph into…well… productions. Real ghosts (if such are to be found and filmed) are nagged to death (no wonder the most common ghost box utterances seem to be “die” “get out” and “run”). And like professional wrestling, there is just enough back story to set the stage for the “scene” but no real history being given, no real sense of the person-cum-ghost being in the least bit human, let alone be worthy of any actual help. And of course, the “best” videos include real demons (who probably have little to do now that God is no real competition in our lives and therefore have plenty of time for cameos – lots of cameos) and whose sheer weight of appearances in the world purely reaffirm the American belief in More Is Always Better, so that no one ghost and no one demon is enough – even for a five-minute video.
Needless to say this has cast a lot of doubt on the whole ghost mythology that we all dearly loved as kids. And that, in turn has affected our expectations.
We have become callous exploiters of what a haunting by its nature indicates is human suffering. Watch a ghost video and you feel…dirty… like a bully. It all feels contrived and carefully orchestrated. It is all Blair Witch sequels into infinity.
In fact, this has cast into doubt not only “real” ghost mysteries, but real Questions we have about humanity, God, and purpose. When all the world’s a stage, all your friends are actors.
But this also says something about the futility of writing a prose ghost story in a jump scare world. Ask anyone who has ever experienced something they cannot explain, and they will tell you how long and boring it was, or how irrational and fleeting. What scares is the mental effort in reconstruction of the emotion the event caused – the prose of it, the frisson of sensing something “off” and out of kilter with what was common and otherwise mundane…a sense of wrongness while your rational mind tells you otherwise…
Real discussions of ghosts do not include horrible, melting faces or long-haired girls peering around corners. Such confessions will not include the weaving of a campfire tale, but describe an event in which something so…common… had an uncanny element that left the witness disturbed.
Yet time and again we cater to the Hollywood formula. Charismatic ghost hunters invade an allegedly haunted space, provoke an “encounter” and leave – or run – in the middle of that long-awaited contact, the very proof they allege they came after.
And when we don’t comply with this formula in fiction, the reaction is punitive. Words like “boring” and “predicable” and “unoriginal” abound. Yet real ghost stories are not about jump-scares and possession and aberrant witchery: they are about people mired in tragedy.
Building a book or short story around that means using lots of words. Lots of backstory. Some sense of plot and arc. Yet choosing just the right amount of words in the challenge…because… short attention spans…looking for the shock and the awe…in less than three minutes, five sentences, or whatever comes first…all dictate what we are expected to write.
There is a lot of public criticism against the traditional ghost story – it is simply not “entertaining” enough… Where’s the shock and grotesque imagery?
Answer: in Hollywood. In faked ghost videos.
These people don’t want ghost stories – they want flash fiction. They want vignettes.
As a reader and writer of Horror, as a fan of The Exorcist for the message…where’s the fun in THAT?
What happens when you reduce the entire world to climax moments? When instead of watching a movie you watch a trailer and call it a day? When you are verbally assaulted by strangers in a workspace and just keep on going like nothing happened?
You realize that is what we are doing in real life as well as fiction AND in film, in ghost videos and Horror in general. Because if we dare give it backstory or more “meat”… it is vaulted into another genre – one where we are expected to take responsibility. I am saying these things are intertwined and inseparable in our culture and in our society.
So what scares ghost video watchers? Apparently there are a few common denominators:
- Peeking heads
- Rising and vanishing forms under sheets
- “Shadow” people type no.1 (literal shadows with no form to cast them)
- “Shadow” people type no.2 (clear 3-dimensional forms with no features)
- “Shadow” people type no.3 (deeply black amorphous blobs)
- Vague, not-fully formed and fleeting figures
- Opening and closing doors
- Thrown objects
- Moving dolls
- Unexplained music
- Flashing or faulty lights
- Strange mists
- Temperature changes
I find it interesting to note that the most popular scares are also the easiest that can be faked, and are the ones most commonly utilized by Hollywood in popular film. One has to wonder how gullible we have all become that we think these representations filmed-on-cue and conveniently familiar to our anticipation of Horror could be in any way true.
Yet if they were true then it is as if filmed ghosts are conveniently taking their cues from Hollywood and rather than Hollywood mimicking what people actually experience. So are ghost hunters mimicking what Hollywood had decided constitutes a good ghost? So it would seem. We are being entertained.
If one checks research and documentation of paranormal research, we find that “real” ghosts aren’t so commonly….common. And if the literature on paranormal research is to be believed, “real” ghosts are also not-so flashy, not so detailed, and not so commonly filmed as weekly YouTube ghost hunters would have you believe. Yet this is what the ghost-watching public seems to demand, and what YouTubers are giving: Hollywood flash fiction.
And this is a clear representation of what we have also seen in Horror fiction: less and less backstory, only enough atmosphere to be serviceable, predictable ghosts, and protagonists who inevitably run from the haunting without resolving the mystery of the ghost, the needs of the ghost, the justice denied. We end things with cookie-cutter ghosts and poltergeists and demons…we keep our ghosts in boxes.
If one watches enough of these videos, a pattern emerges that relies all too heavily on two things: the dynamic personality of the “star” investigator, and the predictability of the ghost. The Questions implicit in wandering a graveyard looking for ghosts have nothing to do with religion, but rather, exploitation and cheap thrills. Therefore, there is no need for “story.”
There really IS nothing more to it. And more and more often, we see the same formula occurring in slightly longer summer movie versions at theaters. The formula we find in ghost videos, then, is the same we see in Hollywood: it is all about the commercialized image we are being groomed to see as scary (which in its own way is as horrific as our 1940s-50s adventures into scaring using the afflictions of the disabled and disfigured). And it continues because it works. Images – especially sudden ones that lurch out of the dark startle us. The “rush” is addictive, fun, intriguing. And the sexier the ghost hunter, the more unimportant the ghost. The ghost video formula hinges upon the visual predictability of the type of ghost and the timing of its appearance (allegedly edited for “time”).
Yet this is where ghost fiction will fall apart if this pattern is mimicked in prose: ghost stories are not about the obvious protagonist – ghost stories are about the ghost. Secondly, predictable ghosts are boring ghosts if jump-scares are what the audience is after. Yet “Real” ghosts are often creatures snared in the predictability of their own tragedies. This truth is difficult to reconcile in fiction versus Hollywood.
If we write ghost stories that utilize this over-emphasis on under-developed, charismatic characters, we lose the importance of the story the ghost has come back to reveal. Because when we watch ghost videos, what we see is a detached personality invading an allegedly haunted location for no particular reason and when a ghost is “found” and even “talks” through some new-fangled “scientific” equipment, the ghost hunter inevitably turns off the box (and the ghost) even in mid-sentence to explore elsewhere. Since contact was the alleged goal, why are these ghost hunters leaving? Except if they know nothing real is happening?
And why when a ghost is finally “seen” or “captured” do we see all that running and screaming? Isn’t that the point of why we all came?
Worse, why is this behavior showing up in our prose fiction? Why do we remake ghosts into demons so we can “banish” the Worst Evil and then go about our daily lives like it never happened? Why are we trying so hard to remake ghosts into caricatures to be refiled in “extinct” and debunked religion – even if we have to briefly resurrect a tradition to lay the ghost or demon? Because if religion is really pointless, then there are no ghosts. And if religion is really pointless, it has no power to lay those ghosts. Doesn’t this say we are spiritually trying to have our cake and eat it too? Worse, doesn’t it speak to a kind of arrogance to say we as sophisticated humans can keep the Unknown safely in a box? The duplicity in the messaging is tearing the ghost story genre apart.
Either we have trained our audience to expect the same in Horror fiction, or our audience has “trained” us to provide it – all under the or-else threat that any other fiction forms will not be published or will not be bought.
So are we writing down to an audience incapable or one also unwilling to invest in real storytelling?
Caricatures and the Reinvention of Religion
In videos, there are also certain characteristics that seem to need to be present to instigate the appropriate fear:
- Literal darkness in atmosphere and darkness in the figures
- Disembodied heads with long hair and typically female
- Misshapen or missing features
- Disembodied screams
- Appropriate responses to questions via ghost boxes
All of these things – these symptoms of haunting – have made the telling of them trite. Whether we are watching ghost videos are reading a ghost story, the slowly opening door has lost its goosebumps, and it just doesn’t matter how well done it is if we don’t already somehow “believe” or want to.
So why are so many Horror readers and ghost video watchers relying on Horror to “prove” the existence of ghosts, to prove the efficacy of religion? Perhaps it is because we have abandoned religion for the flashiness of technology and intellectual “sophistication” that clothes itself in ridiculing religion as superstition. Perhaps our fear is driving false bravado…and in the end, we really are scared of what might be the truth…that some parts of religion are real. And hold dangers. And secrets.
Horror fiction is in the thick of this question. Horror has never successfully driven its audience back to or away from a given denomination, has never been successfully tasked with preaching. But then religion is not about the people who put themselves in charge of it – rather it is about the personal journey, rife with questions. Horror therefore does serve to warn us about hubris and encourage asking questions. It does ask us to suspend skepticism just long enough to ask ourselves where superstition comes from and why. Which then generates that question of what do we do about something that seems to be real and possibly dangerous?
Clearly we are not done with those questions despite our sophistication. And we keep poking the darkness hoping for while simultaneously dreading a response…
And why is the Horror genre selling out to play into the formula of the canned ghost hunt when the Real Questions serve us so much better? Why are we allowing ourselves to be bullied by a public that doesn’t know what it wants, because it doesn’t want to work for the answers?
There are plenty of obviously faked and a multitude of artfully faked videos out there…and the scary thing is the amount of views that they get with seemingly gullible enough people that one has to wonder if Horror is responding to this trend. It would explain a lot of rebellion against Literary writing…as well as the embrace of script writing in the genre.
But to me the most interesting question is:
If all we want is the jump scare, why are we still asking questions about the existence of ghosts? Why are we still flirting with religion?
Because if it not for the religious question of what death means, and what having a soul means, and what having a soul stuck here means… if you are watching for jumps and startles then you are nothing less than a voyeur.
IF ghosts are real, then they represent human suffering.
IF you have questions about the human soul and the afterlife, why are you expecting YouTube to give you the answers? What makes them less disingenuous and deceitful than organized religion?
Granted, organized religion has blown it over the last few centuries. But it should come as no surprise that anything human beings get into is warped by their own egos and the limits of personal power. Man has nothing to do with the existence of God – who either does or does not exist independent of opinion. Therefore His rules exist in the same matrix. Natural law remains Natural law. Why not glean the centuries of religious study for those answers?
Why not admit we might need religion to make sense of the insensible?
Again, this is not an endorsement of any denomination. It does not mean churchgoers “know” esoteric things, or have the power to protect themselves, or by proximity to religion are protected. It simply means that religion is part of the human experience. And trading science for God provides no better protection, no purer insight, no guaranteed proof about that human existence or protection from things as yet unknown or unseen. It simply invents a new superstition…creates a new religion and a new pantheon of gods.
Perhaps we should all stop being scared of the judgment of humanity and start wondering what our lives feed into the whole of the cosmos. Perhaps we should work on being the best human beings we can be – even if it means risking the label of “superstition” – because science is just not all that comforting when people we love die, when we ourselves are facing the Grim Reaper, when things just stop making sense and leave us eviscerated.
And if we cannot abide the trappings of religion, or the theology subject to the edits of Man, perhaps we should still be asking our questions and debating the details in our fiction. Perhaps our readers have the same misgivings, trepidations, bad experiences, and spiritual hunger.
Perhaps Horror is where we should be creating stories that open the vault to these types of discussions…
Either way, I find an interesting connection between watching ghost videos and what is happing in contemporary Horror. Because asking questions – real questions about the unknown, the paranormal, ghosts and such – asking questions means learning answers…often unsavory ones. And then dealing with the psycho-social consequences.
That means longer prose. That means real examples of how hauntings happen and why they intrigue. It doesn’t mean Japanese well-spirits peeking around corners or people in Shadow Man Halloween costumes peering up from basements…
It means dealing with dirty laundry in our histories. It means acknowledging our own hideous failures as human beings. It means humbling ourselves before a seemingly absent greater power to ask not only for forgiveness but for the truth to be shown us. It means being open to an epiphany.
Scary in Horror MUST include the unseen…the sensed… the indistinct. And if it is a ghost story, it must also include very real human beings – detailed characters with real and meaningful backstory that makes us care about the collision with the supernatural…that makes us question everything we thought we understood.
And that means in some way we must have what is thought of as God in the picture. Whether we sheepishly employ a Catholic priest to fix things, or find a wise old medicine man or new age priestess to set things right – in Horror we are admitting that if there is Evil, might there also be Good, and might there also be a struggle for balance between the two?
Should we continue to mock the supernatural and the religious subtext our genre clings to?
If watching all of these ghost videos has taught me anything, it is that our audience has been self-taught to expect bad ghost stories, bad acting, and bad writing. I think good writing takes care of itself, and atheist critics will always have their own ghosts to fight.
But the Literary Critics are right: we cannot continue this charade. We have to move the genre forward. And I don’t think made-up ghosts with faked antics is going to do it.
After the last few months, I think I want to see a little more religion in my Horror. I want to see accountability. I want to see justice. And I want to see questions in search of answers. Ghost videos are “fun” the way pulp is fun. But they are just movie trailers made to fit expectations.
Horror needs more. And our audience – even the ones who think they know what they want – need more, too. Because clearly we still have profound Questions. It’s time to be honest about that.